From out of the past and with a passion for simple, delicate filmmaking comes Ida, a stunning little import from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski. Still playing on a few area screens, Pawlikowski’s film is a tiny masterpiece, a simple story with evocative imagery, reminding us that film is an artform of editing and economy. We don’t see much in Ida, but Pawlikowski makes sure that everything we do see uses the space of the screen to maximum effect.
Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) was orphaned at birth and taken in by a convent in a small Polish village. We meet her in 1962, when she’s just becoming old enough to take her vows to become a Benedictine nun. First, though, the Mother Superior wants Anna to meet her only living relative, who turns out to be an alcoholic aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Anna learns from the less-than-affectionate Wanda that her real name is Ida, and that she was born Jewish. I’ll save you the math and tell you that, yes, that means Anna just narrowly escaped a grim fate at the hands of the Nazis. Her parents weren’t so lucky, and we learn that they were hidden by a family of German gentiles until…something happened. Anna and Wanda spend the movie trying to put up with each other as they parse through the mystery of the parents’ deaths.
Wanda seems to define herself by the political suffering she’s both endured and inflicted. Having narrowly escaped the Nazis, she found work in the postwar socialist republic of Poland as a state prosecutor, where she routinely sent enemies of the state to their deaths. By the time of the movie, she’s numbed by guilt and loss. Strange men file in and out of her bedroom as passively as patrons of a telephone booth. Her toxic grief repels Anna even as she’s infected by it. The alcohol and smoke and rock music of Wanda’s everyday life aren’t attractive to Anna, exactly, but they pique her curiosity, like exhibits in a foreign museum. A cheaper movie would cast Wanda as the impetus for Anna’s delayed coming-of-age, and while the young would-be nun does open up when she’s released into Wanda’s world, she does it as a way of coping with the coldness and filth she finds there, rather than rejecting her beliefs outright in a philosophical about-face.
There is still suspicion toward Jews in the Poland of the movie. When Wanda and Anna find the son of the man who hid Anna’s parents, he refuses them entry into his house. Shot in black and white with an unusually square aspect ratio (1.37:1, as opposed to widescreen, which is closer to 1.85:1), Wanda’s Poland is drab, cold, unwelcoming. When the film opens at the convent, the falling snow at least adds some texture to Anna’s world; when she leaves, the snow no longer falls but the dampness remains. Even in a place where no one wants to be, Wanda and Anna are outcasts. Cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal frame many of the shots to keep the actors small against the overpowering dullness of the landscape. Often, only an actor’s head will be peeking out of the bottom of the frame, as if the characters are being smothered by their unfriendly surroundings.
The black and white cinematography is a wise choice for this film not only because of the stark images it creates, but also because it lends a timeless quality. The film is a period piece that refuses to distract us with its period-ness. We get old cars and retro home décor, but the camera doesn’t seek to dazzle us with those things. It dazzles us the old-fashioned way, with faces and spatial relationships. Trzebuchowska is a vision of composure, and the camera studies her as a beacon of an innocence and dignity that has no place in a cruel world; the only time Anna gets upset is when someone touches her Bible. Kulesza, on the other hand, has the sort of alcoholic beauty that lends her moments of radiance before her sadness ages her by twenty years.
Ida is film at its best because it is meant to be felt rather than studied or simply absorbed. It examines humans in relation to each other, rather than in the context of a strict plot. It peels back the layers of identity and strips its characters bare before our eyes. If life is made up of small moments, Ida is a full-length mirror.